Dungeon games – particularly dungeon campaigns – can suffer from a sense of monotony; by the time you’ve hit the second floor, many games have already turned into a somewhat mechanical progression. Fights settle into a routine, occasionally disrupted by a new monster ability or the wizard learning a newer and nastier spell to use. This doesn’t have to be the case, and today I’ll discuss a few ways that GMs can keep things interesting.
Use the environment. Dungeons often have the downside of being an enclosed and stagnant environment. The stereotype is a cubic room, just large enough for the party and the monsters to duke it out, with a few bits of decor to make it look a little different before blood gets everywhere. Even areas with a potentially exciting aspect tend to end up with this problem; it’s easy to understand why, since making the rooms different on a combat level as well as a setting level takes up that much more effort by the GM with no promise of it paying off. It gets easy to skimp on these details.
The effort should be made at least part of the time, however. A room with a desk and some bookcases? Have an opponent knock a bookcase over onto a member of the party, or take cover behind the desk. A room with magical lights? Let the players and monsters break or cover the lights to change the lighting to get an advantage. Make the environment something to use a few times, with opponents taking advantage of it, and the players will quickly start looking for opportunities to do so.
You can also make the environment a challenge; if the opponents hold the bridge over a swift-flowing underground river (or a sluggish river of lava), include a set of potential stepping stones the more nimble characters can use to get across and flank the enemy. Let them knock opponents into the river to be swept away (or burned away). Same thing with a fight along a chasm-side ledge. Let them decide if they want to risk collapsing an unstable roof to crush their enemies, when it might mean blocking the way forward.
Intelligent opponents fight smart. Enemies who have reasonable levels of intelligence should use it. In Pathfinder, an alchemist with a spider climb mixture who knows the party is coming won’t be waiting in the middle of the room for them to turn up; they’ll be on the roof, ready to drop bombs on the players from out of melee reach. A wizard with summon spells will have a couple of beefy creatures to hide behind when flinging spells. A burly barbarian is going to go for the holy man first, in a world with divine healing magic.
Smart opponents will also work together, aiming to flank players and split the soft targets from the heavy hitters. Some will move to keep the heavy hitters engaged, but they’ll aim for the genuinely dangerous people – spellcasters, healers, ranged attackers. If they’re losing, they’ll try to withdraw, unless they’re defending something vitally important.
They’ll also try other tactics – using traps and ambushes, driving other, less intelligent creatures at the group before attacking the weakened party members, and trying to capture one or more members of the party to interrogate.
Unintelligent opponents fight with cunning. Animals, while not necessarily intelligent, also aren’t stupid. Pack animals will fight as a pack, moving to flank and herd opponents. They may not go for the spellcasters first, since they’re not going to be likely to connect the hand-waving and shouting to the exploding flames, but they’re not going to leap at the heavy metal-coated person, either. Soft targets are what will draw this kind of opponent – a rogue in leather armor, a wizard in flapping robes, and so on.
They’re also not going to fight to the death unless they’re actively defending something like a den or unless they’ve been cornered; bestial foes want to live as much as anyone else. Some may even try to play decoy, feigning worse injuries than they have and trying to lead the players away from their lair to let the others hide or run away. Solitary creatures are likely to avoid groups of characters if they aren’t defending something; if cornered, they’ll take the first opportunity to bolt, possibly getting in a charging attack on the way out.
The only unintelligent foes who can really be justified as fighting to the end without fail are the mindless undead and constructs; both of which will have relatively simple and specific orders as to what they should be doing. Setting the players up against a foe that they have trouble harming but which they can outwit provides for variety with this kind of opponent. A stone golem with orders to guard a doorway is unlikely to continue attacking if the players get around it and pass through the door; zombies that have orders to kill any living person can be fooled into thinking the party isn’t alive. Just be careful with this kind of thing; if the players don’t realize they can outwit and bypass the problem, they may get frustrated at not being able to simply defeat it.
The opponents aren’t going to just stand around waiting. Enemy soldiers will patrol areas. Guard shifts will change. People will be eating, practicing their craft, or sleeping at different times. Encounters shouldn’t be static, and if the players intrude into an area and then leave, their opponents should take measures to reinforce and fortify their position against another assault.
Pick a small number of the factions in the dungeon and give them goals with a timetable; modify it as necessary for the actions of players, but keep advancing down the timetable. This will give the sense that the dungeon is alive and not some static prop waiting for the players to come explore it – and give them a sense of urgency if they discover that their foes are acting on a plan that may result in more trouble for the players.
Lastly, when the players act, have the opponents react. One faction may exploit a weakness the players revealed or created in another; the kobold tribes may move in and occupy the catacomb once the players clear out the undead, or the gnomes might colonize the caverns once the aberrations are pushed back. If the aberrations push upward into weaknesses, the undead servants of the lich may follow suit, putting pressure on the aberrations to continue moving upward.
That’s all for today! I hope that you’ve enjoyed this set of posts about dungeons in gaming.